Club Sandwich: The Parent Trap

Meredith Maran
elderly parents, More magazine
Photograph: iStock

During her three decades at the New York Times, reporter Jane Gross spent several years covering the relationships between aging parents and their grown sons and daughters, then founded the blog The New Old Age. Both the blog and her new book, A Bittersweet Season, were born of Gross’s painful experience at the end of her mother’s life. As Gross writes, “In the space of three years . . . my mother’s ferocious independence gave way to utter reliance on her two adult children.” Here, Gross shares three surprising realities she understood only after her mother’s death.

1. PEOPLE WHO LIVE PAST 85 DIE SLOWLY AND EXPENSIVELY, WHICH REQUIRES PLANNING.
“We all hope our parents will live full, happy lives and then die painlessly in their sleep. But the facts belie the fantasy. The data show that people who live past 85 spend an average of two years needing full-time custodial care: feeding, toileting and dressing, which Medicare doesn’t pay for. When that program was created in 1965, Americans’ life expectancy was 70, so its coverage focuses on medical procedures—heart surgeries, hip replacements—rather than the 24/7 supervision that 85-year-olds need. The best way to prepare is to plan for those years ahead of time, before the family is in crisis mode, when ignorance and panic collide.
In my experience, older people want to make these kinds of plans, but they need their adult kids to open the conversation.”

2. MOVING AN AILING PARENT TO A GOOD NURSING HOME CAN BE AN ACT OF KINDNESS, NOT NEGLECT.
“High--quality nursing homes are few and far between, and not all old people require them. But contrary to conventional wisdom, God won’t smite you down for putting your mom in ‘one of those places.’ The caretaking role reversal that was so humiliating to my mother and so painful to me was greatly reduced, because in the nursing home, that caretaking became someone else’s job. A good nursing home offers not only physical support to the parent but also emotional and practical support to the child. The staff at my mother’s nursing home gave me precious perspective, information and nurturing I wouldn’t have otherwise had.
“I’d always go nonprofit. Then after winnowing the list down, I’d visit and look. Does it smell like urine or disinfectant? Are you allowed to wander around on your own and talk to residents? Will they ‘let’ you visit at mealtime? Are there intellectually stimulating activities or just bingo?”

3. FACE THE FACT THAT YOUR TIME WITH YOUR PARENT IS LIMITED AND MAKE THE MOST OF IT.
“Avoid prioritizing quantity over quality of life. Spend the time you’ve got left together making your parent as comfortable and content as you can. Make room for redemption by minimizing pointless medical interventions, max-imizing positive shared experiences and healing unresolved wounds. And make sure you leave yourself with things to feel good about when your parent is gone.”

First Published May 10, 2011

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